I’d promised this post a little while ago after reading Jonathan’s statistical analysis of skill challenge success rates over at The Core Mechanic. I’m wary of the “echo chamber” effect — At Will has been posting a lot of skill challenges lately, there was a series of war-related challenges on The Core Mechanic recently, and Asmor offered some very good advice at Encounter-a-Day.
After thinking it over though, I remain convinced that there’s more to say. The mechanic itself is pretty integral to the fourth-edition experience — it’s the first time a structure has been offered in D&D for long-term non-combat challenges involving the entire party.
It’s also one of the messiest and most misunderstood portions of the rulebook, even with the errata. And this is a pity. The designers of 4e developed a mechanic that could take the game — the default, rules-as-written game — into territory far beyond what was possible with earlier editions as-written. And then they flubbed the execution and created widespread confusion.
What’s a skill challenge? It’s a mechanical “wrapper” for handling extended gameplay periods that the combat system is not designed nor intended to handle. Chases, diplomatic negotiations, infiltrations, traversing the wilderness, escaping a prison — all of these things and more can be handled with the skill challenge rules. And if you’re willing to bend those rules in the right ways at the right times, you can achieve even more with them. But it’s probably more helpful to take a look at what skill challenges are not.
Not a Substitute for Roleplaying
This is one of the criticisms 4e gets most: that skill challenges replace roleplaying with dice-rolling. It’s a little ironic, since 3e attracted the same criticism — a quick search on “diplomancer,” a character designed to overcome all encounters through incredibly-high Diplomacy skill, is enough to prove that. But that’s not what 3e skill checks were meant to do, and that’s not what 4e skill challenges are meant to do, either.
A skill challenge can be run that way, to be sure. In the same way, a combat can be run as nothing but die rolls. But just as a combat run that way tends to get boring pretty quickly, a skill challenge run that way will suck the life out of the game. (As a tangent, one of my main criticisms of the RPGA is that they tend to run skill challenges this way.)
A better way to run a skill challenge is to intersperse the skill checks with roleplaying. If the party is negotiating, they’ll be speaking in character with the NPCs, and you can call for Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate checks as necessary. They may ask out-of-character questions of you as the gamemaster — often these can lead to Insight or knowledge checks. Likewise, if the party needs to cross a wilderness without any supplies, you can ask what each member is doing, and call for checks as necessary — Athletics, Acrobatics, Nature, Perception, Stealth, even attack rolls (for hunting).
Good roleplaying or clever ideas should be worth a bonus on the skill check. In exceptional cases, you might even award automatic successes, or remove failures. The dice have a part to play — for one thing, they ensure that the brilliant and charismatic player with the Int 10, Cha 8 character doesn’t win based purely on player ability (which would be bad roleplaying, but roleplaying nevertheless). But the dice shouldn’t be what dictates the flow of the skill challenge. The roleplay should do that.
If you have a case where there’s very little roleplay to be had, that might be an indication that it really shouldn’t be a skill challenge. Instead, see whether you can make it a simple check, or just narrate through it.
The skill challenge mechanic should be used only when there’s a real chance of failure and real consequences for that failure, as Asmor suggests in his post. What I’d add is that the consequences need to be significant in order to justify a skill challenge.
Diplomatic negotiations are a skill challenge because the party might fail to gain needed help, inadvertantly make enemies, push a neutral party toward their enemies’ side, or ruin their credibility.
Haggling over a piece of equipment is usually not a good skill challenge. Even though there’s a consequence for failure, a higher price, that consequence is typically trivial. There might be exceptional cases: if the PCs are haggling to buy a galleon or a plot of land, and the cost difference is significant, then it might be worth developing a skill challenge. But do you really want to devote a large chunk of game time to whether the fighter saves 2g on that new sword or not? That’s a situation where brief roleplay and a simple skill check is better for the game than extensive roleplay with a skill challenge.
Likewise, if the characters need to climb a mountain, and they’re not in any particular danger or under any time pressure, there’s no need to even make them roll checks. Just figure that if it’s possible for them to do so, they’ll eventually manage it. If it isn’t, they won’t. Again, this is a situation where you might be better served asking for, at most, a single check, from the person with the highest (or the lowest) climbing or pathfinding skill, and using that to determine how long the effort takes.
Not a Dead End
While there need to be consequences for failing a skill challenge, those consequences should not be “the adventure can’t progress.” As I pointed out in response to Jonathan’s post, the party isn’t meant to always win a skill challenge, any more than they always win a combat. In fact, the odds for skill challenges are significantly worse in many cases.
Players are expected to fail a fair number of skill challenges, and the consequences for failure are supposed to introduce new obstacles and challenges to the storyline. If the players fail in those diplomatic negotiations, it should make it more difficult for them to achieve their goals. They’ll have to take a different approach, and they may have made enemies who will move against them. But the goal should still be attainable.
If failing a skill challenge would end the campaign, or bring to a halt a major storyline that your group is enjoying, then you should think carefully about whether that should be a skill challenge in the first place. Sometimes it should. Many campaigns have had climactic combat encounters, so why not a climactic skill challenge?
Often you’ll be able to get around the “dead end” issue with some creative thinking about potential consequences — or your players will come up with an idea on their own. But a GM inexperienced with the mechanic might easily make this mistake.
For instance, a skill challenge to track down a lich’s lair sounds appropriate. But “you can’t find the lair” is not an appropriate consequence for failure, because it bars further adventuring. A better consequence would be that an informant wants the party to do something else for him before he’ll give them the information, or the lich catches wind of the investigation and decides to strike first — inadvertently opening a new path of investigation. There are plenty of other options, too; the key is that these consequences keep the game going, and keep things interesting for the players, even though they didn’t find the lair. They still could find it, in the future; meanwhile, a side quest or some attacks by the lich’s minions will keep things moving along.
Tangentially related: While the odds of succeeding at a skill challenge are low by the book, I believe that small bonuses were intended to be relatively easy to get. Offering those +2s for roleplaying or ideas not only encourages roleplaying, it also makes the challenge more likely to result in success. (I also think the default experience reward is too low, by the book, for the difficulty. That’s easily addressed by the individual GM, though. I generally don’t give XP based on encounters, personally.)
Not a Sacred Text
Like every other part of the game, skill challenges are meant to be interpreted and adjucated by a GM. The rules already explicitly allow you to award automatic successes or remove failure for creative use of powers. You can do the same for excellent roleplaying. You can judge that a given skill is worth two successes. You can judge that a skill could remove failures instead of granting successes — if the NPC sees through your Bluff and gets offended, maybe you can use Diplomacy to calm him down. You can allow for all manner of other appropriate rolls, not just skills — in the ‘skill challenges of war’ series on Core Mechanic, attack rolls are often options, and raw stat rolls might be useful sometimes too. Just as you can improvise moves in combat, you can improvise solutions in a skill challenge.
Not Necessarily Stand-Alone
You don’t have to run a skill challenge as a separate block of time. Try mixing a skill challenge with combat — maybe the characters need to disarm a trap in order to retrieve an artifact, while at the same time also fending off the mad cultists who possess it. Maybe they need to tend to the injured captain’s severe wounds while also helping his remaining men hold off the invading forces. This can be a great way to add a little extra pressure to both the combat and the challenge.
A bit more on bending the skill challenge rules to your purposes in a future post; this one’s long enough already.
- Hacking Skill Challenges
- More on Skill Challenges…
- War Week: A Harvest of Men
- Heroic Effort
- 4e Errata Released
Categories: Advice, Philosophy and Rants | Comments (14)
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